Review: The Motherfucker with the Hat

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s jittery comedy is alert to the struggles and supports of melting-pot New York. Its first Irish staging from Orion Productions tries to do justice to its voice

Sinéad O’Riordan and Andrew Lynch

Sinéad O’Riordan and Andrew Lynch

 

The New Theatre, Dublin

****

 

Don’t let the title fool you; the language of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2011 play is hardly impoverished. Just listen to how Jackie (Andrew Lynch) – recently out of jail, newly sober and just employed – greets his girlfriend, Veronica (Sinéad O’Riordan): “These flowers are for my Beautiful Boriqua Taino Mamacita Love Me Long Time Princess fuckin’ Beauty Queen.”

That brocade of endearment emphatically announces a Puerto Rican voice in New York, so specific, at times, that Guirgis has offered some dispensation to overseas productions: “Don’t worry about trying to ‘be’ Puerto Rican,” he wrote. It’s useful advice for Orion Productions, which has the energy and attention to detail for this hyperkinetic comedy of struggle, suspicion and support in contemporary America, but a cast as ethnically diverse as The Nolans.

Instead, race is largely indicated through impersonation and deep tan, which could become a distraction were it not for director Aoife Spillane-Hinks’s alertness to social rhythm and nuance. Preserving any kind of balance is the challenge of Guirgis’s play, where Jackie, enraged by a stray hat in his bedroom, confronts his cocaine-addict girlfriend, now defending her virtue with a broken vodka bottle. It’s a jittery play where comedy might turn nasty any moment. A moment later, in a fine performance, O’Riordan’s Veronica suggests going out for pie, where “cooler heads could prevail”.

The coolest head belongs to Ralph, Jackie’s sponsor, who is 15 years clean and as dirty as they come. “Guess what?” an enjoyably smug Peter Gaynor says about his love for yoga and nutritional beverages, “I’m an asshole” – which his polo shirts and chinos make clear. When things go awry, they seek help from Frankie’s cousin Julio, fascinatingly ambiguous in his sexuality and even more so in his cooking. Written closer to Hispanic caricature, the part invites Rex Ryan to go over the top, and although his accent veers towards parody, Ryan holds on to a strangely grounded sense of sensitivity and courtesy, and is rewarded with the best line in the play. “Leave the gun,” he snaps. “Take the empanadas.”

It’s funny how people can be more than one thing, realises Jackie, which is as far as epiphanies go in this male-dominated world of braggadocio and supposedly inviolable codes. But the play does ride the frazzled energy of contradiction. People fool themselves and each other; positive visualisation has negative implications; insincere seductions overshadow genuine acts of support; and the greatest wisdom is knowing when to quit. Spillane-Hinks expertly guides this chaotic music of “users” and deceivers, although nine successive scenes and laborious scene changes across three different spaces interrupt its fluidity.

That’s a meagre price to pay for a production of high ambition that constantly hints at how much more the world could achieve with the right support.

Until Dec 20

 

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